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Reinvigorating Franchisees an Art at Stained Glass Firm

April 30, 2001|KAREN E. KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Michael Cassidy became president of Stained Glass Overlay Inc., a franchised designer glass business, his goal was to invigorate the stagnant string of 350 independently owned franchise outlets. Though the international chain had potential, it had been underperforming for about a decade: Profit was flat and revenue slow. Cassidy's challenge was to increase in-store revenue without alienating longtime owners, most of whom were artisans first and business people second. His mixture of diplomacy, communication and retraining has brought new life into the company. He was interviewed by freelance writer Karen E. Klein.

The most important thing to me, when I started here, was to show the franchise owners that I understood why they got into this business. I knew if I came in strong, talking marketing, budgets, spreadsheets and income statements, it would be the last thing they would want.

Very early on, I spent a lot of time in the field with the franchisees. I had a series of meetings across America where I just listened to them. Out of those meetings we put together a group called the Franchisee Advisory Council, made up of some of the more seasoned, respected franchisees. We meet by phone once a month, and a couple of times a year in person, so they can tell me what's on their minds.

One thing I noticed right away is that in terms of design, artistry and customer care, most of these franchisees were off the map in how good they were and how proud they were of their product. But a lot of them had missed the whole notion that it's really important to make a profit in business, and this is a very profitable business if you run it right.

Once I had earned some credibility and respect, the opportunity came to introduce some of the programs that I felt would help the owners move ahead. First was the "Simply Beautiful" program, a multifaceted coaching, accountability and feedback group. My vice president and I talk on the phone twice a month to the 28 franchisees who have chosen to participate. They tell us about the day-to-day challenges and opportunities they face, and we get a chance to talk about our ideas.

For instance, I am a big proponent of having annual financial and business plans, and we found that most of our owners don't have those. We developed a business planning package with spreadsheets and instructions for people who want to use it, and told them they also could use a different package if they preferred.

What we're trying to stir in through this communication is a new business culture, where they are tuned in to business fundamentals like financials, goals and objectives. They also can participate in a series of regular conference calls and an online discussion group, where they interact with other franchisees.

That was another peculiar characteristic I found when I first came on board: The franchisees didn't spend much time talking to each other. So, at our recent convention, instead of having people from the corporate office get up and talk the whole time, we ran a talk-show format, where we had one of the franchisees serve as a host and interview four other successful owners about what they're doing with their businesses.

Instead of the traditional vendor-dominated trade show, we invited the franchisees to share their ideas. Eight of them took tables and brought an array of brilliant ideas. Some of the breakout sessions were led by franchisees who have tremendous expertise in certain areas, such as how to install window casings.

These guys had every bit as much knowledge and credibility as some outside expert, and it allowed us to turn the floor over to them and show them that we understand that they know what they're talking about. It also gave the franchisees a chance to talk to each other and learn from each other, whereas before they had the opportunity to interact only at lunch and breaks.

Another thing we've done is change and update our training methods for new franchisees. Long-standing owners who were trained in the '80s were given an opportunity for retraining with a program called Renew 2000. Franchisees who had been in the system six years or more were invited to come to our corporate headquarters and spend a few days with us learning about the new software, budgeting and marketing tools we have established. Ten of the franchisees came in, at their own expense, for this retraining and they absolutely were thumbs-up in their assessment of it.

We've kept these programs optional for established franchises because we felt that was the right way to do it. If long-standing franchisees don't want our help, that's fine. They still get treated with respect and they still get the materials and support they need from us. But we gave them some incentives. Everyone who submits a business plan by the end of the first quarter, and then meets the plan goals by the end of the year, gets their name entered in a drawing for a Caribbean cruise for two.

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